Toddler Speech Delay: When To Worry

I often read posts in my birth groups from mums worried about their toddlers speech and whether they should be concerned about a speech delay.

I was that mum with my first.

When he was 18 months old he was still only saying a handful of words.

Mum. Dad. Ball.

He wouldn’t repeat words back to us when we tried to prompt him like other kids seemed to do and when we would read him stories or word books he would be impatient and distracted and not really paying much attention, let alone trying to say any words back. By this stage other kids were saying sentences in my birth group and the more I read about what they were saying the more of a complex I developed over where C was on the speech scale.

By 2 years old he had added a few words to his vocabulary but lost others in the process and spent all day talking in his own language. He would yabber away in gibberish but without any real words thrown in the mix and he seemed behind in understanding the meaning of words too.

So I decided to get him assessed and I was right to. He did have a speech delay and we started to get some help.

So when do you start to worry about a speech delay?

We started to worry for these reasons:

  • By the time he was 2 he wasn’t learning a new word every week and would sometimes drop words he had been saying for awhile.
  • He spoke gibberish all the time without any real sounding words.
  • He wasn’t trying to repeat words back to us.
  • He was far off the 20 words he should have had in his vocabulary by 18 months and 50 by age 2.
  • He wasn’t stringing any words together.
  • He didn’t seem to understand simple commands like ‘Go and get your shoes’ or ‘Get the ball’.

If that sounds like your child, I would start seeking some advice.

So many well meaning people would say to me that it was normal and not to worry, he would catch up. But while those are all the things that we want to hear, sometimes it isn’t wise to wait.

The sooner you can get help for something if needed, the better! The worst thing that could happen would be they turn you away and say you don’t need the help (yay!) but if they do need some guidance, it is better to start early.

C started speech therapy at around age 2.5 once he became eligible for publicly funded speech therapy (he went on the list at 20 months) and came in leaps and bounds. What I learnt was that he was a slow starter but eventually he did manage to catch up to his peers.

One of the most valuable lessons in speech therapy I learnt was something so simple but it really made a difference.

When he would say something like ‘Ball’ while playing with his toy ball you should repeat that back to them by adding another word or two into it. So he would say ‘Ball’ and I would say ‘Red ball, look at the red bouncy ball!’ and so on and so forth. He would say ‘cat’ and I would say ‘Yes, big fluffy cat!’. This made a HUGE difference. Something so simple but so valuable.



If looking at a picture book with this train Cohen would say ‘Train!‘ and I would say ‘Yes Cohen, big blue and green train!’ and repeat that several times. ‘It’s a big blue and green train isn’t it!’. Repetitiveness is the key.

My friend Melanie is a speech therapist and had this to add:


“Recurrent ear and nose infections often have a big role to play in speech delay of preschoolers. This can lead to short term hearing loss and difficulty producing speech or being understood. Your GP is your first point of contact, and if a pattern of infection occurs they can refer you to a specialist for investigation and follow up treatments. The placement of grommets or tonsillectomy and/or adenoidectomy surgery is not uncommon in youngsters in NZ and often results in these children making steady gains with their speech and learning shortly after.”

So if you are worried, don’t brush it aside. Don’t wait and hope that things will get better. They very well might … or they might not.

If your child sounds like mine, follow your gut and your mummy instincts and get some advice because the sooner you start the sooner you can put the therapy into practice and help them to catch up.

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61 thoughts on “Toddler Speech Delay: When To Worry

  1. My sister was in the hearing difficulties causing speech delay your friend mentions. It took my mum a long time to get the health professionals to agree to refer her to have her hearing tested, though my mum was convinced she could not hear. She had her adenoids removed and gromits to open her ear canals, and speech therapy to catch up her language.

    I do think boys are often less chatty than girls so that people worry they are behind when they are actually fine. But I think there is a difference between a child who clearly knows words and commands, but chooses not to say them often, and one who doesn’t have the words available. As you say, I think you can often follow your instincts as to whether there is a problem.

    Glad Cohen has done so well in speech therapy. #sharewithme
    Silly Mummy recently posted…‘Perfick’: The Ten Funniest Things The Toddler Said Last WeekMy Profile

    1. I’m glad your mum kept pushing to get your sister the help she needed (medical and otherwise). Boys do tend to take longer to talk, I believe girls are generally about 3 months ahead of boys in speech but boys are often active sooner. Pretty sure that is what my well child nurse told me anyway! 🙂

    1. Thanks Mel! I’m sure there are lots of mums who could benefit from this so feel free to share on FB too! Hope it helps your friend.

  2. What a thoughtful and informative post. I’m sure it will be helpful for many parents who are wondering the same thing. Our youngest has been a bit slow in developing words and at 18 months I was starting to wonder. It has only been as recently as this week that she has really exploded with word after word. #brilliantblogposts
    Rob recently posted…Rob: That Dreaded FeelingMy Profile

    1. Especially with your first! I’m much more relaxed with my second. There is nothing worse than feeling paranoid and not knowing if you are overreacting or not.

  3. We can totally relate to this post! My mummy was worried about my development after having lots of Middle ear infections and damaged drums. I wasn’t advancing as quick as my little friends. However I was storing words! We agree that Repetitiveness is key! Thanks for the reassuring and informative post! #Sharewithme #BrilliantBlogPosts
    Baby Isabella recently posted…10 Things I Love / HateMy Profile

    1. Repetitiveness is a huge thing, I had no idea how much until we started seeing the speech therapist. Glad she, ah, you are getting better with your words! 😉

  4. My youngest was in therapy at 18 months for a speech delay – the decision was easy for us because he has unilateral deafness and wears a hearing aid so there was no question of getting him seen as soon as he dropped behind. I always tell people to set the ball in motion if they are worried because it can take months on waiting lists if you are going public. We’d already been seeing a private speechie for 10 months before my son made it to the top of the public waiting list (we stuck with our private speechie in the end). I also recommend that parents look into a book/CD set called “It Takes Two To Talk”, which introduces the Hanen program methodology used by lots of therapists – lots of practical advice you can easily incorporate into everyday interactions with your child. We had great success with it.
    Hugzilla recently posted…The Fine Art of Murdering Simple RecipesMy Profile

    1. That book set sounds interesting Melissa, I’ll look into it! Cohen is doing really, really well now though but he could probably still benefit from it as he is still a little behind in speech clarity (not to me, but to others). My 2 year old on the other hand is well ahead of his peers. LOL. Funny how they can be so different!

    1. They’re for link ups, I have linked with Brilliant Blog Posts and Share With Me link ups so people hash tag the one they have visited my post from to show where they found me/came from 🙂

  5. This is such a great post Haidee. I am a speech therapist by day and I agree with everything that you have said here. Expanding on whatever they say by adding one or two words is one of the big strategies that we teach parents. Another one is observing (observe what they’re interested in and go with it), wait (whether it may be a sound, word, phrase) and listen (show that you’re listening to them and respond accordingly). We call it OWL-ing and it’s one strategy that makes the biggest difference because it allows the child to use the communication skills they have. It’s a strategy taken from the Hanen It Takes Two to Talk program which another reader mentioned above that is designed for children with a language delay. I could go on and on about this topic because I see quite a lot of children in this age bracket but I’ll stop there! x

    Jess | It’s That Time For

    1. Oh thank Jess, really appreciate your comment! Because I am not an expert in this I could obviously only write from a parents point of view but it’s something I struggled to find much info on that wasn’t very bias on the ‘don’t worry, they will come right eventually’ view point or so complicated I was left wondering whether to follow through with an assessment or not, so your comment is very reassuring!

  6. Thanks for sharing, we had the opposite issue, mine is a chatterbox and was trying to say sentences right from the start, this meant she learnt to skim over sounds she couldn’t yet pronounce and this became a pattern. For us, it’s about trying to say less… slowing her down and saying the individual sounds.
    I would say if you are worried, get an assessment, speak with your daycare or paediatrician, they will either ease your worries or suggest an assessment.
    Vicki recently posted…I made this today – Crochet Amigurumi Tea CupMy Profile

    1. It is so simple but it wasn’t something I knew to do until we started the therapy, funny how it’s often something so simple that makes the most difference.

  7. This is great advice. I worried a little with my second, but put it down to his big brother speaking for him, and sure enough once he started to speak it was in complete sentences, which took us by surprise a little. But, I think the key thing that you highlight is trusting your gut, as a mother you know your child best and if you’re worried, get it checked out and stick to your guns x
    Sara | mumturnedmom recently posted…Summer: Bucket List UpdateMy Profile

    1. I think that is such a common thing Sara, I have heard that a few times. We had the opposite where our youngest was really ahead from listening to his brother and copying.

  8. I could have written this post. My son is exactly the same. He is three and three months and is still way behind his peers but has made amazing progress recently. I write a lot on my blog about my sons speech delay and he still has quite limited understanding compared to other children his age. He is just starting to follow simple instructions now. I get so sick of hearing “he’s fine. It’s because he’s a boy”. It’s only bow that we are having intervention that friends and family are taking me seriously. My daughter is 18 months now and I do get paranoid with her sometimes but her understanding and speech as a million times better than his at that age.
    Unhinged Mummy (aka Janine Woods) recently posted…Slimming World – Week ThreeMy Profile

    1. I’ve followed your blog on FB Janine as I am interested to read about his progress. He sounds very similar to my boy and the repetitiveness shown to me by the speech therapist made the biggest difference.

  9. Thank ou for this. My eldest (4and a half) has ASD and is pre-verbal, and I have been getting anxious about my son whi is 16 months and not really talking yet. On the other hand he’s pointing lots, showing joint attention, singing songs and doing gestures, and he seems to understand quite a bit, so I’m trying not to fret too much just yet, but I will be keeping an eye on him. #sharewithme

    1. That sounds pretty good for 16 months Alison, Cohen was doing none of those things. I would say keep an eye on him and reassess around 20 months. Hard not to worry when you have experienced something with your first though, I totally get that!

  10. This is really useful. I have been wondering about this recently but it sounds a little different. My just turned two year old has less than 50 words but he learns a couple of new ones each week and his comprehension is very good. He understands instructions and humor and has done since about 13 months. He does have is own language for some things but less and less and will say things like “where did daddy go” but this is something i want to keep an eye on. We does lots of the things you mention so hoping the rest will come #brilliantblogposts
    Mummy Fever recently posted…Top 3 Safest Cars in 2015My Profile

  11. Great post and great advice, Haidee. I’ve had some family and friends with kids who didn’t speak until quite late. They didn’t seek advice or specialist care, but if it was my child I would have. The worry would have taken me over. Plus if you know there’s a problem there, why not get in and get it seen to straight away. Glad your little one is coming along in leaps and bounds x
    Renee recently posted…5 carpet cleaning hacks every parent needs to knowMy Profile

  12. Thanks for pointing me towards this post! I still can’t decide as my gut isn’t really clea on this one! lol so my health advisor suggest I wait a few more months before making a decision. Although I worry his nursery seem to think he’s doing fine…so maybe I’m just a worry-er! thanks for sharing! #brilliantblogposts xx
    susan @happyhealthymumma recently posted…How can my baby be 2 already?!My Profile

  13. I was concerned about my now 2 yr old at 18 months as he didn’t have many clear words at all, whereas his older sister was speaking in complete sentences by 16 months. But by about 20 months something clicked and words started to make sense and now at 2 he’s a right little chatterbox. Great post Haidee 🙂
    Mumma McD recently posted…I took my 6 month old to a speech pathologistMy Profile

  14. Thanks for this guidance. My newly 2 year old is a man of few words and on occasion I have wondered. It’s only now he is starting to merge forward with his speech but it’s taken longer than I anticipated. I’m doing the repetition thing with him with the hope to build his ability. Good on you for following your gut!
    Vicki @ Knocked Up and Abroad recently posted…One Month OnMy Profile

  15. Hmm, interesting points. I haven’t read all the comments but I wonder, how do you tell the difference between a speech delay (caused by hearing loss, ear infections or any other issue) and a child who is simply a late talker? My daughter was always very healthy and seemed just as bright as her peers, but hardly spoke a word until she was three. Once she did though she didn’t stop, and within 6 months she had caught up. Now, at five, she has a great vocabulary. I guess we could have sought speech therapy for her but we were aware she could hear and weren’t personally worried.
    Meryl @ Simple Family Home recently posted…Konmari With KidsMy Profile

    1. The very first thing they do when you bring up any concern surrounding speech is to check their hearing thoroughly and review their health for any signs of recurrent ear infections etc, so if it is that then that is addressed prior to any therapy, once that is ruled out then the speech therapy can be applied for. Glad she managed to catch up on her own 🙂
      Haidee recently posted…What’s Yours Is Mine And Mine Is MineMy Profile

  16. Thanks for this informative post. My twins are about to hit 18 months in terms of their corrected ages and I do worry that they’re not saying many clear words. But thier comprehnsion is really good so hopefully they’re jsut storing all the language and will surprise me before long! We are due for our development check soon so I will mention my concerns.
    [email protected] recently posted…How to enjoy your newbornMy Profile

  17. My little boy was exactly like yours at that age, but there were other things too, like lack of eye contact, and hand flapping. I took my concerns to my maternal child health nurse just before he turned 2. It was a long, painful road but eventually he was diagnosed with autism 6 months ago.
    Dani @ sandhas no home recently posted…Boodi and the BeastMy Profile

  18. I’m having a dose of the guilts because we had our first private appointment with a speech pathologist with our son (5.5) yesterday. I was a bit concerned last year when he was 4, but I didn’t act and now he’s in Prep, having had some school-based therapy last term, and is behind with his reading and writing. His vocab is pretty good but he skips words. His delay is not severe but I feel bad that it is now impacting on learning. The big thing with us was that with our kids being adopted (our son was 9 months old when we adopted him in China) I didn’t want to be THAT adoptive parent who always looked for problems and made a big deal out of everything. I still think our approach is right, but I wish we’d had some speech therapy last year before Prep.
    Kathy recently posted…Cloud TenMy Profile

  19. My daughter just turned 2 and has been having speech therapy from about 20 months. The last two weeks she’s come along in leaps and bounds and have probably added another 10-15 words to her vocabulary and she’s repeating everything now. I’m so glad I got it check early because I was the same as you with all the other kids in my mother’s group being bounds ahead of her. We still need to work on some other sensory issues, but I’m really happy with how she’s going speech wise.
    Toni @ Finding Myself Young recently posted…Dairy free zucchini and corn mini muffinsMy Profile

    1. I just do lots of sensory play with her at the moment as she hasn’t been diagnosed properly yet so haven’t been given a list of specific things to do. She has pretty big meldowns when she gets overwhelmed and I find stroking her is the only thing that calms her down. She seems to like touch so we’re doing lots of things where she can feel different things.
      Toni @ Finding Myself Young recently posted…Underwater World MooloolabaMy Profile

  20. This was me. S was 2 yrs and 3 mnths and only had a few proper words. I had him assessed but shortly after we went on holiday with my nieces who were a few years older than him and oh my, did that help!! He started speaking and now at 3 yrs and 4 mnths you’d think he’s a lot older because his speech has come along so much! I agree with you though, always trust your mummy instinct! #brilliantblogposts

  21. This is a great post Haidee. My girls had recurrent ear infections, but in the general overwhelm of baby twins, working and trying to keep a household together, it took me a while to realise there was a problem. Afterall, they were developing at the same rate as each other!

    The delay meant they struggled when they started reception and in the early years at school, generally being behind their age targets academically. So you’re so right to encourage others to jump on it and get assistance as early as possible.

    On a positive note, they just turned 17 and have caught back up and powered ahead. So, the early delay hasn’t had any lasting impact. Both have uni in their sights for next year. 😊
    Jo recently posted…Running with DogsMy Profile

  22. Great post and good to let others know when to worry and not worry. My nephew hadn’t said anything before his third birthday so my sister was panicking and they thought maybe downsydrome and now he never stops talking and just took a lot longer to learn then others. Sometimes I think it’s tough to know when it’s too early or too late. I was a little consider for MM but this summer she is starting to talk more. Thank you ever so much for linking up to Share With Me #sharewithme
    jenny recently posted…Upcycling for beginnersMy Profile

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